FIRST CAME the
carnage, followed by the texting between friends. � Good win, Ohio State's
James Laurinaitis thumbed to his West Coast buddy after USC's dismemberment of
Virginia on Aug. 30. Way to go, man. Keep it up. � Nice shutout, replied the
Trojans' Rey Maualuga, referring to the Buckeyes' 43--0 clubbing of Youngstown
State that same day. Keep doing what you do best. � An innocuous exchange?
Without question, Maualuga acknowledged last week as he was chauffeured in a
golf cart back to Heritage Hall from an on-campus photo shoot. "But I may
stir the pot a little next week." � No need, Rey. The pot will be on full
boil by this Saturday, when the L.A. Coliseum hosts the most momentous
nonconference game of the season. Top-ranked Southern Cal versus No. 5 Ohio
State will be more than a riveting matchup of deep, talented and superbly
(though differently) coached teams. It will provide a denouement to the drama
that has consumed the republic since Chris Wells limped off in the third
quarter against the Penguins: What's the deal with Beanie's right foot?
The game also
stands to generate, on one sideline or the other, a torrent of second-guessing.
Why didn't I just take the money? Each team is rich in seniors who put the NFL
on hold for one more year of seasoning and another shot at a national
Two of those
returnees happen to be the finest middle linebackers in the country.
Laurinaitis and Maualuga became friends last spring at the gathering of the
Playboy preseason All-America team in Phoenix. They have plenty in common
beyond their shared position, their mutual regard and all those vowels in their
surnames. Both were projected as first-round picks before last April's NFL
draft, and they have two of the more exotic pedigrees in college football.
Laurinaitis is the son of Joe Laurinaitis, better known to devotees of pro
wrestling as the Animal, one half of that groundbreaking tag team, the Road
Warriors. Maualuga is the great-great-grandson of a Samoan chieftain.
In other ways the
two are as different as, well, "Superstar" Billy Graham and Jimmy
"Superfly" Snuka. Whereas the 6'3", 240-pound Laurinaitis arrived
in Columbus as a student of the game who fixated on watching tape, Maualuga
could not count the reading of defenses as one of his strong suits. But with
his cheetahlike burst and power at the point of attack—"He blows people
up," says one NFL scout—the 6'2", 260-pound Maualuga is the more
naturally talented of the two. And the more flawed. Prone to misreads and blown
assignments early in his career, he gained a reputation as a ball-chasing
freelancer who, in his quest to make the highlight-show hit, could not always
be bothered to fill his gap.
mentorship of Ken Norton Jr., the former Pro Bowl linebacker who now coaches
the position at USC, Maualuga "has become a much more disciplined
player," says the scout, who requested anonymity. "Ken has taught him
to read linemen and stay in his run fits [assigned gaps]."
The scout adds
that Laurinaitis "is not as physically gifted, but a lot of [ NFL] teams may
find him more desirable because of his ability to captain the defense, to make
the right checks, to key and diagnose the play. He may not be as athletic or
explosive [as Maualuga], but he's going to get there just as quickly because he
just sees it and reacts. That's why he's so productive."
skill sets reflect, not surprisingly, the programs that produced them.
Considering his quest to facilitate "peak experiences" for his players
and his desire to use them "in ways that best express their ability"
and "exhibit their true nature," it's little wonder that Trojans coach
Pete Carroll made a place for Maualuga. So what if the linebacker has an
independent streak (for kicks, he wore a pink thong over his shorts during a
team workout in July) and had an early tendency to overrun as many ballcarriers
as he brought down.
approach would never fly at Ohio State, where the emphasis has long been on
order, precision and consistency. The players are required to toe a line as
straight as the part in coach Jim Tressel's neatly groomed hair. Defensive
coordinator Jim Heacock emphasizes the reliability and intelligence of
Laurinaitis, and is effusive about his discipline and preparation. In the
Buckeyes' 2--0 start, including a 26--14 win over Ohio last Saturday,
Laurinaitis had 14 tackles and an interception. "From Day One he knew what
he wanted to do and got himself ready," says Heacock. "So when his time
came to step in, there was no panic."
That is not to
say that there was no shouting. "I was in Helsinki doing a tag-team event
for the WWE," recalls the Animal. "I was getting ready for bed when the
call came through from my wife." Julie Laurinaitis, home in Hamel, Minn.,
watching the 2005 Ohio State-- Michigan battle on TV, was screaming into the
phone, "James is on the field. He's in the game!"
Wolverines' first play from scrimmage, strongside linebacker Bobby Carpenter
went down with a broken right fibula, and onto the field trotted an 18-year-old
freshman. Laurinaitis had played in the first 10 games—none, obviously, of this
magnitude. Doing his best to block out the Big House crowd of 111,591, he
settled down ever so slightly when weakside linebacker A.J. Hawk winked and
smiled at him. "You're going to be fine," middle 'backer Anthony
Schlegel assured him. "This is what you've been working for."
Laurinaitis's only tackle came on the last play and helped preserve a 25--21
victory that secured for the Buckeyes the first of three straight Big Ten